A proposal to revamp the law school campus recruiting process is being met with resistance among some of the largest legal employers in New York.
Recruiting officials at a number of law firms have raised concerns about recommendations made last month (pdf) by a commission under the National Association for Law Placement that would restrict them from making offers to second-year law students until January, five months after on-campus interviews usually take place.
The change was intended to respond to a harsh economy but would become permanent if implemented. Critics say it may add to the costs of the recruiting season and make it difficult to manage the hiring process, adding that it may even result in fewer students being hired.
"I think the net result of this will be, if it's adopted, people will make fewer offers, because everyone will be very concerned about over-hiring," said Jorge Juantorena, a hiring partner at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton.
The report was released last month by a recruiting commission formed by NALP, a national organization of law schools and employers that, among other things, sets guidelines on the annual on-campus interview season, such as how long students can hold onto a job offer before making a decision. While the process has changed in minor ways over the years, since the 1970s it has remained largely the same: Law firms recruit in the fall and make offers shortly thereafter.
But after the recession began affecting the legal market, law firms found themselves overstaffed and laid off hundreds of lawyers in New York and nationwide, and delayed by up to one year the first-year start dates. Employment in legal services in New York shrank 5.7 percent last year, according to the New York State Department of Labor.
Law firms also extended fewer offers to second-year law students in 2009 for summer associate positions in 2010.
A 17-member commission appointed by NALP examined ways to alter the recruiting season in large part in response to the pressures the recession had created on hiring demands. Its preliminary recommendations included what the group said would be the most significant change to law student recruiting since the association began developing recruiting timelines: a fixed "kick off" or offer date.
Instead of making rolling offers beginning in the fall, firms would have to wait until January, under the theory that students could consider all of their options before taking an offer, while law firms could look over the whole applicant pool instead of rushing to hire the best students at schools with early interview dates. By pushing back the offer date to January, firms would also be able to consider their year-end financial results before making offers to students to join as summer associates.
The report also recommended, among other things, shortening how long students could hold onto an offer to 14 days from 45 and encouraging employers to inform students as soon as they decide not to extend them offers.
The idea of a kick-off date has its supporters. Rosalind Kruse, the hiring partner at Willkie Farr & Gallagher, said the firm supported having an official offer date if that meant law schools would move forward the interview date. Schools have largely scheduled on-campus interviews in late August, when many corporate lawyers are on vacation, she said.
"It would really enable us to go to more schools and send more senior attorneys if we had the [on-campus interview] date in September," she said.
J. William Dantzler Jr., a hiring partner at White & Case, said the later offer date would give firms and students more time to get to know each other.
Students have better odds of landing at the right firm by learning about a firm during the semester, rather than the way it is now, "which is rush rush rush to make a decision and move on. And of course what they trade off on their part in a little longer uncertainty."
RESISTANCE TO OFFER DATE
But many firms are resisting the proposed January kick-off date.
"The proposal is sort of nightmarish, in that most schools currently are confirming their August on-campus recruiting period," said Steven Sletten, the firmwide hiring partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. "To have to wait until January to extend offers would mean we'd have a six-month fall recruiting period instead of what would typically be two to three months. And that doesn't help anybody."
James Leipold, executive director of NALP, said reaction to its proposals among the schools and firms has been "mixed." NALP is reviewing feedback from more than 825 members, including more than 125 written comments. People agreed the system was not working, he said, but "almost universally people felt a January kick-off date was too late."
A majority of officials from law firms and schools who attended a forum in November on the recruiting system favored an offer day in early November 2010, according to a Jan. 20 memo (pdf) sent to NALP by the leaders of that meeting at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and Stanford University. While a January date was considered, the memo said, many were concerned it would increase the time and cost of recruiting.
Naima Walker-Fierce, director of legal recruiting at Weil, Gotshal & Manges, said she was concerned that by creating a prolonged recruiting season, firms may spend nearly half a year wining and dining top students.
"It's going to be very costly for firms, because I don't know if firms know what else to do other than throw more money at it," she said.
And some firms, such as Cleary Gottlieb and Jones Day, are opposed to the notion of a single offer date, regardless of the month. Juantorena at Cleary said a fixed date gives firms less control over acceptance levels. With so many out-of-work lawyers, he said, firms would likely decide to err on the side of under-hiring at law schools and hire more lawyers through other venues if needed.
"If there's one thing I think we've learned in this downturn, it's that it is in no one's interest if a firm over-hires, because it means you'll have trouble down the road and will either have to lay people off or have to defer people," Juantorena said.
Jones Day, in a widely publicized letter to NALP written by hiring partner Gregory Schumaker, said the recommendations would "impermissibly alter the competitive market for the hiring of law students."
Schumaker also argued that the proposals unfairly benefited (pdf) law firms who laid off scores of associates, rescinded offers or delayed start dates. Those firms, he wrote, "have damaged their reputations among law students and law schools and impaired their ability to recruit effectively." By imposing the January kick-off day, he said, those firms are able to level out the playing field.
Leipold at NALP said it is "too premature" to say which proposals will be adopted. He said the commission may complete a final recommendation by the end of the week. NALP's board of directors is expected to vote on recommendations on Feb. 25-26.